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Ebooks as Textbooks Part 5 - Vocabulary


1. The body of words used in a particular language
2. A part of such a body of words used on a particular occasion or in a particular sphere: "the vocabulary of law".  (Google's define: vocabulary)
Vocabulary is a basic part of any textbook or book, there is always new words to learn for each subject, with much of the new vocabulary appearing in the textbook's glossary. As for a students personal vocabulary, it only makes sense that there is a relationship between background knowledge and vocabulary: The more you know about a topic, the more likely you are to already be familiar with the vocabulary of that topic, although this can cause conflicts when students may be using words from a common context that they know to when that word is used in a specialized situations - such as for science class. Also it just makes sense that better readers have a better vocabulary, and vocabulary can be used to explain current and future reading skills and achievement   As good percentage of new words learned are often acquired through reading, and are learned through the words' context, a process often called incidental vocabulary learning. Students learn from the word context by gaining understanding and connections between the new word and the already known words in the surrounding text (as a corollary, if the text is mostly not understandable or the words used are unknown then little new word learning can take place). Vocabulary interventions and and instruction has been shown to increase reading comprehension (Elleman, Lindo, Morphy, & Compton, 2009), so vocabulary instruction is usually a basic element of any reading curriculum.  To help students understanding with any textbook (no matter the format) they should be instructed on basic techniques for helping bust their awareness of the context clues such as :
  • Modeling for them basic strategies for using context clues when reading from any text.
  • Giving them explanations of how, when, and why to use context to understand word meaning.
  • Providing them with guided practice in using context.
  • And reminding them to apply contextual understanding skill when reading. (TRI/TEA 2000)
Unfortunately not all texts do provide good context clues, and some texts may (especially many textbooks) have too many new words to the student for them to understand the context surrounding the words, whereupon direction instruction or the use of a dictionary would assist. A problem example might be with science textbooks, as science texts are usually more difficult to read than other classes textbooks (Hayes & Ward 1992). This is supported by research that has found that often the amount of new vocabulary terms in science textbooks is higher than that recommended for secondary foreign language courses, and it's argued that this kind of overly high vocabulary load may contribute to the problem of science avoidance by students (Groves 1995, Yeager 1983). As a science teacher I would regularly instruct students about elements such as prefixes and root words to help them understand new vocabulary, such as the use of -ology for the "study of" working with their new terms such as biology and geology, or a prefix like bio- that works with biology, bio-science, biosphere, and even biography. And of course there were times when they were reminded to use the glossary to look up new vocabulary to look up new words or check other words meanings. 

The Interactive Dictionary

In my opinion one of the great things that ebooks can do is vocabulary support through the interactive dictionary. Not that printed books don't have vocabulary support, but looking anything up is a time/distance issue. In physics we have a special vocabulary word for this, "brachistochrone" which actually means "shortest time".  We see this when light refracts as it goes through different mediums (e.g. air to water), so instead of traveling in a straight line it refracts and follows Fermat's Principle of Least Time. Not trying to get too physics on you, but people do this too, it may be shorter for you to take a road from point A to point B, but if you know that that road is very busy, then you most likely take a different path (even if it is longer) to get where you want to go quicker (this is also why many don't follow sidewalks and create their own paths through the grass). I feel that this least time effect is one that can be supported by an ebook's interactive dictionary.

When students are reading from a book, ideally they will achieve what Csikszentmihalyia calls a state of Flow, where they are completely absorbed by what they are doing (1998), but to look up a word that a student doesn't know would actually stop such flow. Many educators are concerned about such stops in flow interfering and disrupting the comprehension process, something that Susan Night found wasn't a problem for students who were reading electronic text with an interactive dictionary, instead she found that it instead improved vocabulary and reading comprehension (Knight 1994) From my own experiences with students I've also noticed that they want that least time effect for the new vocabulary. When I was in the room while they were reading, they would ask me or a student near them the meaning of words that they didn't know, some would look in the glossary, but very few would ever get up and go to a dictionary and look up a word - instead they would just skip it and hope to understand better from context or just not get it yet. This to me is similar to Thomas Allen's research in the 1970's that found that there was a relationship between distance between people's offices and often they interacted. This is now known as the Allen Curve, and shows a strong negative correlation between physic distance and communication. I see the Allen Curve at work concerning vocabulary and looking up things, in this case not so much distance (although I do think it also applies), but how much time it will take.  So my adaptation on the Allen Curve for vocabulary is "The longer it will take to find the definition of a word, the less likely it is to be looked up." I've even now found for myself when reading novels, I'm more likely to look up an unfamiliar word with my ebook device, then when reading printed paper. And so because of the built in propinquity of the interactive dictionary, I'm more likely to interact with it.

So as students come across new or unfamiliar words they should be reminded that they can have their device tell them what that word means. That it will be a quick and easy way to find out more about that word and then they can continue (least disruption of flow). To find the definition of a word all they usually have to do is select the work and either the definition will appear or they can choose the define option. There are also given access to levels to the definition, first there is the general (short definition); then if they want, they can click to access the full definition, opening a dictionary (ebooks can support multiple dictionaries, so if desired, students can switch between different English dictionary (e.g. versions of the Oxford Dictionary), or use dictionaries available in other languages (not translating dictionaries - but still useful for foreign language classes).
Short definition using the desktop Kindle ebook reader program.

Access the full dictionary to see a definition using the desktop Kindle ebook reader program.

Other look up options for the desktop Kindle ebook reader program.

Dictionary within Dictionary:

If the student uses the interactive dictionary to lookup the definition of a word and the definition uses a word that the student does not understand, the interactive dictionary can look up that word instantly from within the definition. Many defined words are also hyperlinked to other definitions as "see" statements.
  • Select the word that is not understood.
  • The definition should appear, or choose the lookup option.
  •  Within the dictionary if there is a word that you don't understand in the definition, you can  look up that word by clicking on the word and seeing the definition or by selection the option to lookup. 
  • It is also possible to use the search option when you are in the dictionary for the system to look up which is not currently shown.

Searching for Context

Another advantage of etextbooks and vocabulary deals with the context clues, that were mentioned before. Yes, all books have the context elements surrounding a word, but ebooks allow you to search for context. You can search a printed book for context, but unless that book has the word in bold or italics, it can be hard to find. With an ebook version of a textbook (or any book), instead the reader can search for that term and find the number of occurrences that word appears with surrounding words and direct links to where that word appears in the book. For example, if you were trying to understand SALT in chemistry class, then the white crystals used for seasoning food would most likely be insufficient  But by using the search term "salt", over a hundred occurrences of the word in different iterations appears in the text. By looking at the surrounding words in the results list, a reader can start to see the number of ways that salt is used in chemistry. Now they explore how the word is used through the different contexts, just by clicking on each of the search results. The word will appear highlighted, with the selected search result in one color and the other uses of the word also highlighted on the page.

Searching for a term to find it contextual usage.

Ebook Dictionary Activities

Can be done as pre or post reading activity

List the vocabulary words on the board.
Use the search feature to find a word. Read the passage that contains the vocabulary word. Tap on the word and use the interactive dictionary to look up the definitions of the word, and decide which definition is most appropriate.
Applying the definition: Create a text box linked from the vocabulary word; this box will have three parts:
  1. Write the vocabulary word, then;
  2. Leave the text box, select and copy the sentence and paste it into the text box;
  3. Then have student use the interactive dictionary; and then write a short definition in their own words of the word in the text box. 

Concept Mapping: If you are creating the etextbooks it is also possible to add concept maps for vocabulary understanding by embedding the map as part of the textbook. A Concept of Definition Map allow students to show common element of a definition including the category, characteristics and examples and non-examples of the word.   For example if you were to adapt your etextbook an instructor could add a definition concept map in the text, then the student could add text in the appropriate parts by clicking or highlighting the question and then using the note taking feature of the ebook to write in their responses. If it isn't possible to add such concept maps to the etextbook, students can be instructed in the elements of the map and use the note taking feature to write in the concept map elements themselves: Word; Category; Characteristics; Examples & Non-examples.

What is it? (category)
Examples  word/phrase-----VOCABULARY WORD-----  Non-examples  
What is it like? (characteristics)


Allen, Thomas J. (1984). Managing the Flow of Technology: Technology Transfer and the Dissemination of Technological Information Within the R&D Organization. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1988), "The flow experience and its significance for human psychology", in Csikszentmihalyi, M., Optimal Experience: Psychological Studies of Flow in Consciousness, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, pp. 15–35.
Elleman, A.M., Lindo, E.J., Morphy, P., & Compton, D.L. (2009). The impact of vocabulary instruction on passage-level comprehension of school-age children: A meta-analysis. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 2(1), 1–44.
Groves, F. H. (1995). Science vocabulary load of selected secondary science textbooks. School Science and Mathematics. 95(5), May 1995. Retrieved January, 2013 from
Hayes, D. P., & Ward, M. (1992). Learning from texts: Effects of similar and dissimilar features of anthologies in study guides. Paper presented at the 42nd Annual Meeting of the National Reading Conference  San Antonio, TX.
Kinght, S. (1994). Dictionary use while reading: The effects on comprehension and vocabulary acquisition for students of different verbal abilities. The Modern Language Journal, 78(3), p 285-299.
TRI/TEA (Texas Reading Initiative/Texas Education Agency). (2000) Promoting Vocabulary Development. Austin TX: Texas Reading Initiative/Texas Education Agency.
Yeager, R. E. (1983). The Importance of terminology in teaching K-12 science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 20(6), p 577-588. 


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